On DVD: Get Your Swoon on With Ava Gardner's Flying Dutchman
Barely heralded today among the midcentury Hollywood auteurs, Albert Lewin was as distinct in his personality as Alfred Hitchcock or Fritz Lang or Sam Fuller, and just as much of a terrarium-maker. His micro-worlds, including the new-to-disc 1951 classic Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, had a particularly dreamy vibe. His most-seen film, the 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is unforgettable not for its fidelity to Wilde's morality play but for its very strange, doomed-romantic bell-jar effect, a movie seemingly made up entirely from Hurd Hatfield's cheekbones, Angela Lansbury's round eyes, a single Victorian tavern set, and mist.
His best film, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, is romance movie-ness on steroids; there's nothing half-hearted or middling or realistic about it. True love equals cosmic doom and nothing less. Shot in mesmerizing Technicolor by master DP Jack Cardiff (Michael Powell's favorite), Lewin's film mixes up the between-the-wars air of Hemingwayesque aimlessness and despair with a mythic star-crossed love story, complete with ghosts and transmigrated souls. Think of it as The Sun Also Rises as rewritten by Emily Bronte -- starring Ava Gardner yet, in her first color film and redefining what it means to be a four-dimensional sex-bomb movie icon.
The story conforms fair tightly to the poppycock you'd imagine when you read the title -- Gardner is a cynical expat earth goddess lingering in Spain with a coterie of smitten, disillusioned men, all of whom will either die or kill for her. She loves none of them, of course, but plays with them like a hollow-hearted cat, until James Mason appears mysteriously on a yacht and slowly reveals himself to be, yes, a cursed Dutchman atoning for his sins for centuries, until his dead wife comes back to him and forgives him. And of course, she looks exactly like Gardner.
This is all laid out with grave seriousness, but you can practically see Lewin behind the camera, clutching his heart and swooning at every story beat. The film certainly looks like no other -- Surrealist artist Man Ray supposedly contributed designs, and there's no denying the film's extraordinary compressed perspectives, American-night beaches, antique totems, and Spanish landscapes, organically evoking like no other Hollywood film the paintings of Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dali.
Which is all to say that this film exemplifies what's to love about movies when they're busy being pure movies, like Fuller's vein-popping filmography and Hitchcock's clockwork nightmares, only in a genre that rarely gets a taste of crazy auteurship. Most American romances are pallid, weak-willed affairs. But like Powell's best films and a slew of French films, Lewin's lavish postwar fable goes for the gusto, with the stakes jacked up far beyond something as trivial as happiness. The Surrealists in their '20s heyday would've loved it.